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Death in Numbers: North Carolina Is Cooking the Workplace Fatality Books, Investigation Finds

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

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A long read investigative report from The Charlotte News & Observer took a deeper look into the on-the-job fatality numbers provided by the North Carolina Department of Labor and found that due to the agency’s methods many worker deaths are withheld from the public.  According to the paper, 80 workers who died on the job were not accounted for when Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry announced her “record low” 23 fatalities occurred in 2013 (she took office in 2001).

It seems the numbers are kept artificially low due to the state’s methodology of only counting incidents they investigate.  In other words, if the state does not want to count a fatality, it simply will not investigate the matter.  

The methodology differs from most states but is not entirely unique.  Of the 25 states that run their own labor departments, only Michigan and Oregon use the same method as North Carolina.  Both of those states, however, routinely point out that fatality statistics represent only a small segment of workers killed in their press releases and reports. 

North Carolina stays creepin’.

This news came as a surprise to James Andrews, President of the North Carolina AFL-CIO and a member of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advisory council.  Speaking to the News & Observer, he said he was once proud of the plummeting death tolls and thought the decline was a reflection of the agency’s training and education efforts.

“I thought we had something to celebrate,” he said. “This, though, seems to paint a false picture of where we are.”

The North Carolina Department of Labor argues that they are not withholding information or attempting to manipulate the numbers. Anyone seeking a more detailed report on workplace fatalities, they suggest, can visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics for a more accurate portrayal.

The problem is, of course, that some North Carolina officials are hanging their hats on the doctored deaths, praising those who do not necessarily warrant praise for an accomplishment that is not real, and painting a picture of a safe state to work in when the reality is workers face the same dangers there as elsewhere.

According to the News & Observer investigation, figures provided by the North Carolina Department of Labor do not include:

Fatalities of employees at farms with fewer than 10 employees and no housing for migratory labor. Congress prohibits investigations in those circumstances.
▪ Self-employed people with unincorporated companies, even those with employees who may have been exposed to the fatal work-site hazard. This, too, is limited by federal law.
▪ Workers who die on military bases or while working for any federal agency or on a federal facility. Federal occupational safety and health investigators handle these cases; therefore, they are not counted by state investigators.
▪ Workers who take months or years to succumb to the on-the-job injury that had not been initially reported to state investigators. State laws prohibit investigators from issuing citations against employers more than six months after the situation leading to the injury or accident occurred. While safety compliance officers could investigate, they don’t because they have no ability to levy fines if they see a problem.
▪ Law enforcement officers whose deaths were caused by criminal acts. Though DOL investigators have authority over the health and safety of officers, they don’t inspect cases caused by someone breaking the law.
▪ Laborers working in the mining industry. Even if their deaths were not in the mines, federal investigators have authority to inspect, not those from the state.
▪ The deaths of anyone who dies while working on or around open waters, including professional fishermen and divers. Federal law prohibits state investigation of these deaths.
▪ Unforeseen acts of violence. If a boss had no reason to suspect or believe his employees faced a threat of violence, state inspectors wouldn’t investigate the incident.
▪ Most workers who die on the roads. Employees killed in a motor vehicle crash while working aren’t covered under the state’s occupational safety and health laws.


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